Having spent time this week in both New Hampshire and Iowa, the states featuring the first presidential nominating contests of 2012, and having been in Michigan the week before, I am getting the feeling that this has all the makings of a very strange election. Foremost among the reasons for this is the fact that the country is in a deep funk. The numbers tell it all.
The economy has not recovered from its near collapse three years ago. Unemployment levels are still double what they were a little over a decade ago. Pension funds are still reeling, having lost 20 to 30 percent of their value. Nearly one in five homeowners is at risk of foreclosure. Most middle-class Americans are working harder, earning less, and feeling more insecure about their futures. And the income and wealth gap has widened, with the top one tenth of a percent of Americans controlling more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. As Bob Borosage, the head of the Campaign for America's Future, has noted, this income gap in the U.S. today is greater than it was in Egypt at the start of their revolt earlier this year.
All of this has taken a profound toll on the public mood. Eight out of 10 voters think that the country is on the wrong track. The president's job approval rating is in the low 40-percent range. Congress' approval rating is one quarter of that, with only 11 percent of the public approving of the job Congress is doing.
Voters might not be happy with the president and his party, but they are less pleased with Republicans. And when asked whether they believe that their children will be better off than they are today, almost two thirds of Americans say "no" -- a stunning figure that points to the collapse of the American Dream that has motivated and sustained the hard-working middle class for generations.
It is this funk, or generalized state of unease and/or depression, that has given birth to the various social movements that have so polarized parts of the electorate. First there was the Tea Party, led by Republicans who were able, for a time, to take this insecurity and anger and direct it against government in general, and the president in particular, in order to advance their party's agenda. This has now been met on the progressive side of the political spectrum with the growing Occupy Wall Street movement. This effort, which began a few weeks back in New York City, has now spread to dozens of cities across the country. It has now been joined by organized labor, giving it heft and sustainability.
Republicans want nothing more than to defeat President Obama and retake control of government. In fact, from the earliest days of the Obama administration, they made clear their intent to block his every move and ultimately defeat him in 2012. As a result, Washington has become even more polarized than the deeply divided electorate, with the GOP-led Congress refusing to compromise with Democrats and the White House, creating all-too-frequent crises that have repeatedly threatened to shut down government.
It is in the midst of all this funk and polarization that we are going to have a national election, and Republicans are finding themselves victims of the very movement they counted on to bring them success. Having preyed on the insecurity of white, middle-class, middle-aged Americans and having fueled their anger, unleashing them as a disruptive force in 2009 and an electoral weapon in 2010, Republicans now find themselves being chewed up by their own creation. In 2010, established, conservative Republicans were defeated in primaries by the so-called Tea Party activists who demanded ideological purity.
Now, in 2012, moderate to conservative Republicans who might have aspired to run for the presidency have been frightened off by this very same movement. Respected governors have declined to run, and those who are in the race have kowtowed to the extreme anti-government, intolerant, socially conservative, anti-science, anti-immigrant and Islamophobic politics of what has now become the base vote of the GOP.
For months, mainstream "establishment" Republicans waited for a "savior" to announce his or her candidacy, hoping that they would galvanize the party, leading it to victory. One by one, these "saviors" have refused. And so it has now dawned on Republicans that they will have to settle for the candidates presently in the mix. Some Republicans may like this state of affairs, but polls are showing that almost one half of GOP and Republican-leaning independent voters are dissatisfied with the current slate.
And so with the first contests less than three months away, the flawed Republican field is in some disarray, with many GOP voters in a funk over the field and their prospects in this election they so desperately wanted to win. With the latest entry, Rick Perry, the Governor of Texas, having shown himself to be less of a star than was hoped for, most recent polls now show former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney with a slight lead over businessman Herman Cain and Perry -- with no Republican in any poll scoring much over 20 percent.
On the Democratic side, the president has had to contend with discontent among his key constituencies: Latinos, African Americans, environmentalists, organized labor, those who sought more sweeping health care and financial reform and others, all of whom wanted him to fight harder, and many of whom are disappointed. Because the president faced such stiff opposition from Republicans and knew that he could not count on even the total support of some Democrats, he has over the past three years been compelled to compromise, often settling for less than he had wanted and less than his supporters had expected. His accomplishments are many, but the discontent remains.
The White House has now taken a different tack, proposing a jobs bill and other reform measures that represent what they want, and they are taking it in a fighting spirit to the electorate. Whether it will be enough to shake Democrats out of their funk remains to be seen.
The contest, at this point, appears to be focused on intra-party dynamics, with Republicans trying to fall in love with a candidate they will have to settle for, and Democrats trying to fall in love again with the president.
This will all happen, in due time. But for now, in Michigan, New Hampshire and Iowa, some voters are angry, but many more remain in a deep funk, and it is this mood that defines the electorate.
Dr. James J. Zogby is the author of Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us, and Why it Matters (Palgrave Macmillan, October 2010) and the founder and president of the Arab American Institute (AAI), a Washington, D.C.-based organization which serves as the political and policy research arm of the Arab American-community.